Who is Wole Soyinka?
Wole Soyinka is a prominent figure in African literature who was born on July 13, 1934, in Abeokuta, a city in southwest Nigeria. He attended elite secondary school, Government College of Ibadan, and thereafter went to University College Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan). In 1957, Wole Soyinka obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, and was later awarded an Honorary degree of D. Litt. in 1973 at the same university.
Wole Soyinka has taught as a professor at many prestigious universities in Nigeria and abroad. He has also authored many books, poems, and plays. and has been a strong advocate of human rights.
Wole Soyinka’s incarceration
While making reconciliatory efforts to prevent the Nigerian Civil War of 1966, Wole Soyinka was accused of supporting the Biafran movement and was imprisoned for almost 2 years by the then military regime. While in prison, Wole Soyinka wrote his prison memoirs titled ‘The man died‘.
Nobel Prize Award
In 1986, in recognition of his distinguished literary works, Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and he is the first African to be awarded same.
Below are my top 10 literary works by Wole Soyinka:
Books by Wole Soyinka
1. The Man Died
‘The Man Died’ is a classic book written by Wole Soyinka during his incarceration. In this book, Wole Soyinka narrates his ordeal in incarceration and also his acquaintances with prominent figures in Nigerian history. One of such prominent figures was fellow playwright Ken Saro Wiwa, who was sentenced to death by a retroactive degree during the Abacha regime. The following quote was taken from the book:
The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.Wole Soyinka
As with many of Soyinka’s literary works, keep a dictionary close before opening it!
2. Climate of Fear
In the Climate of Fear, Wole Soyinka talks about how things like terrorism and uncontrollable forces of nature have become a topical menace in the modern world.
The book is a collation of transcripts of lectures originally delivered by Wole Soyinka at the Reith Lectures 2004. With the current Covid-19 pandemic, the ‘Climate of Fear’ remains a classic read on my top books by Wole Soyinka.
3. You Must Set forth at Dawn
Soyinka takes us on an adventurous journey through his adult life in this autobiography. You Must Set Forth at Dawn chronicles Soyinka’s acquaintances with many of the prominent figures in the world. The book is like Nigerian history, written from the perspective of a key witness to Nigeria’s historic events.
You Must Set Forth at Dawn is a must-read and one of the best books by Wole Soyinka.
Plays by Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka has written many plays, many of which have been beautifully performed on stages. Below are my top plays by Wole Soyinka:
1. Death and the King’s Horseman
Death and the King’s Horseman is a fascinating literary work by Wole Soyinka. Soyinka says the play was actually based on some factual events that occurred during the colonial era. The play was set in a fictitious Yoruba kingdom where the reigning king would usually have a ‘Horseman’ who wines and dines with him in his lifetime. The Horseman eats what the king eats and wears the same clothes as the king.
According to tradition, upon the king’s demise, the horseman ought to die with the king (by way of ritual suicide). This is necessary because the horseman would need to help the king in crossing to the afterlife, otherwise, the king’s spirit would be stuck on earth. After the king’s death, the horseman was prevented from committing suicide by a colonial officer and a tragic event occurred thereafter.
While some readers/audience might mistake the essence of the play as ‘clash of cultures’, Soyinka emphasizes that he wants the reader/audience to rather appreciate its threnodic essence. Death and the King’s Horseman has recently been adapted into a film titled ‘Elesin Oba‘ in 2022. The film is available on Netflix.
2. A Play of Giants
A Play of Giants is a satirical play about African tyrants. In this play, Soyinka takes the reader/audience on a vivid trip to a fictitious rendezvous of African tyrants.
3. Jero Plays – the Trial of Brother Jero and Jero’s Metamorphosis
The Jero Plays are about a character named Jero who disguises himself as a prophet. Jero gives fake prophecies that often promise his victims wealth or some fortunate events.
In the event that the victims somehow experience a fortunate event, they attribute it to Jero’s prophecy and go back to reward him.
Jero’s scam is a popular phenomenon in Nigeria and Jero’s character seems very realistic. The Jero Plays are indisputably some of the best plays by Wole Soyinka.
4. Beatification of Area Boy
In this play, Soyinka takes the reader/audience on a vivid trip into the lives of ‘area boys’. The play is filled with humour and funny characters. If you ever wonder what ‘area boy’ really means, then this book is a must-read for you.
5. The Lion and the Jewel
The Lion and the Jewel was set in a village. It tells the story of a village belle who is being wooed by Lakunke ( a teacher with a western mentality) on one hand and Baroka (the village head) on the other hand. The play is one of Soyinka’s top plays and has been performed on stages in many countries.
Below are my favourite poems by Wole Soyinka:
This poem is written from the perspective of ‘Abiku’, a Yoruba mystical child who dies after birth and returns in subsequent births only to die again and torment its parents with grief. Abiku is undoubtedly one of the best poems by Wole Soyinka.
2. Telephone Conversation
Telephone Conversation was inspired by Wole Soyinka’s experience of racial discrimination while in the United Kingdom. Soyinka humorously describes a conversation between a landlady and an African man seeking accommodation in this masterpiece.